Thursday, November 1, 2018

The $125 ad that costs $170

Courtesy of Millikan High School:

Friday, May 4, 2018

Book review: "A River in Darkness" by Masagi Ishikawa

If news events in North Korea leave you puzzled, you could probably go to the library and pick up a stack of dry, fact-filled history books to give you some background.

Or, you could read Masagi Ishikawa's "A River in Darkness" and understand North Korea in a deeper, more intimate way than any traditional history book could offer.

In "A River in Darkness," Ishikawa tells his heartbreaking life story that began in 1947 in Japan. His father was Korean (from what is now South Korea), his mother Japanese.

When Ishikawa was 13, his father was won over by North Korean propaganda promising a "paradise on Earth" in Kim Il-Sung's newly formed Communist state. Despite the objections of everyone else in the family, the father insisted on moving them all to North Korea.

Immediately, they knew they had made a disastrous mistake, but there was no turning back.  Their first meal in North Korea was dog meat.  Their new home was a shack. While they had been poor in Japan, they were much, much worse off in North Korea.

Food was always short in their North Korean village and Ishikawa's family often survived by eating weeds, acorns and tree bark. Around him, Ishikawa saw people starve to death.

"When you're starving to death, you lose all the fat from your lips and nose," writes Ishikawa. "Once your lips disappear, your teeth are bared all the time, like a snarling dog. Your nose is reduced to a pair of nostrils. I wish desperately that I didn't know these things, but I do."

After Ishikawa, the most prominent character in the book is his father. In Japan, his father was a violent alcoholic who repeatedly beat his wife. Oddly, the beatings stopped once they reached North Korea, and Ishikawa reports that how his father belatedly transformed into a compassionate man.

As much as I like the book, I do have some issues with it.

First, while the author carefully describes his father and mother, he does little to bring his sisters to life in the narrative. They pop in and out of the story, but we never learn much about their personalities..

Seconds, late in the book, Ishikawa reports that after years of terrible jobs, he gets a relatively good position delivering supplies of soybean paste and soy sauce. This was a good job, he explained, because it would give him the chance to use the items to bribe officials in exchange for highly valued goods like a refrigerator or television. But then he drops the subject and never mentions it again.

(Warning: Spoiler alert ahead!)

Finally, I was troubled at the end when Ishikawa has made his way back to Japan. He says that his greatest desire is to get his family out of North Korea, but when he meets with Japanese officials, he passively listens to them and never asks for help get his family out. Huh?  There must be something missing in his telling here -- he's not a professional writer, after all  --  but it did trouble me.

Still, those are minor quibbles. Overall, after reading this book, I feel I understand the anguish of the North Korean people more than ever. There are no simple solutions, though. As Ishikawa makes clear, the North Korean people have been beaten down for so long, they simply don't understand what living free would mean.


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Getting a better deal on satellite TV

I was excited recently when our two-year commitment to DirecTV expired. We'd signed up with DirecTV -- leaving Dish Network -- in 2016 after they promised us an attractive package that would seemingly save us money.

But the deal was less than it appeared. We knew from the beginning that our initial low rate wouldn't last, but later discounts that they promised never materialized. Plus, their basic rates went up. Our costs soared, and we ended up pay $98 a month, a ridiculous amount. 

What's more, there were numerous thing about DirecTV that I didn't like.. The user interface was  nonsensical in many ways and some "features" were more annoying than helpful. And there was the time their tech support was unable to solve a problem -- even with multiple attempts -- that turned out to be very simple.

So when the two years we had promised to DirecTV expired, I was eager to go back to Dish Network.  

But things didn't go as expected.

At its website, Dish offered a package for $59.99, plus tax. The package, the ad said, "includes DVR." That looked good. But I had a few questions, so I decided to call them. 

One I reached a Dish rep, he wouldn't even discuss price until I had given him  my social security number and a credit card number. They said it was to establish my credit, but I found it incredibly intrusive.  After I pushed back, and with quite a bit of reluctance from the rep, he eventually relented on the credit card number request. (Geez, even when you buy a car, they're willing to discuss price before checking your credit.)

The pushy rep eventually offered me a package that amounted to $74.99 plus tax. Huh? What happened to the $59.99 a month? Oh, said the rep, that doesn't include the $15 a month for the receiver.

Think about that for a second: You can't watch Dish Network without their receiver. You must have one. So while the Dish website advertises $59.99 a month, it is impossible to actually watch Dish Network at that rate. I suppose you could say you don't want a receiver, but then what? Stare at a blank TV?

Eventually, the rep took $5 off after I agreed to online billing. So that brought it to $69.99 a month plus tax. Also, after I mentioned an offer made on another website, he agreed to give me a $100 Visa giftcard as part of our deal (hint: use the code CARD100).

It took a lot of work, but I seemed to finally have a Dish Network package that was, well, OK.  With tax it would be about $72.50 a month.  Plus the $100 giftcard.

A couple hours later I called DirecTV to give them one more chance. I said I would be disconnecting my service in a few days, and if there was a better rate, it was time to tell me now. Honestly, I wasn't expecting much -- maybe they might offer me $5 or $10 off a month.

Then the bored-sounding rep offered me $60 off a month for 12 months.  I thought there had to be a catch, but no -- she was offering me a rate of about $38 per month, tax included. 

Geez! Yes, I had some complaints about DirecTV, but with that kind of price, I could live with those flaws. I jumped on this deal. 

When I called back Dish to cancel my installation appointment, the rep scoffed at my DirectTV choice, ridiculed DirectTV and offered me $10 more off (so, I guess, a rate of about $62 a month).  I said no thanks.

Of course, the new price only lasts for a year. So next year, DirecTV and Dish, expect to hear from me again. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Wait, wait, don't tell me ... the facts

I normally love the NPR show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." The news-comedy show is almost always clever and funny, and I even learn a few things.

So I was disturbed this week when I heard the show make clear factual errors regarding what some call a Facebook privacy "scandal."

First, "Wait, Wait" host Peter Sagal said that Facebook "sold all our data without telling us." This is not true. First, Facebook did not sell users' data, at least not in the case in question. What it did was allow a Cambridge University researcher named Alexandr Kogan to offer Facebook users an personality survey called "This is Your Digital Life." When people downloaded the app, it allowed Kogan access to information the information they had put on Facebook, and the information that some of their friends had posted.  So not only did Facebook not sell data, this episode did not involve "all our data."

Second, in conversation with a guest, Sagal said that a company known as Cambridge Analytica bought this data from Facebook. That is not true, either.  Cambridge Analytica got the user data from Kogan.

Third, Sagal said Cambridge Analytica "stole the personal data" of Facebook users. This is completely false. As I said above, Cambridge Analytical got the data from Kogan.


Monday, March 12, 2018

My day with the SAT

On a recent Saturday morning, a couple hundred teenagers gathered outside a high school waiting to take the SAT.  Some of them may have noticed a 50-something man standing among them in the drizzling rain, and wondered, "What is he doing here?"

That man was me, and I had my reasons.

Some months earlier, I had started thinking about the SAT.  My kids would be taking the college entrance test this year and next and I wanted to learn more about it. I figured the best way to really understand the SAT was to take it.

That wasn't my only reason. The other was that I'd never taken the SAT.  I'd taken a different pre-college test four decades ago. As the SAT has risen to become the college assessment test, I've occasionally wondered how I would do on it.

There was one way to find out.

About a month ahead, I starting preparing. I took practice SATs, and reviewed my answers.  It was quickly clear that I was much stronger on the reading and language portions than on the two math sections. In math, I had a lot of catching up to do.

I studied pre-calculus and algebra topics on Khan Academy.  I tried a book called, "Outsmarting the SAT," that turned out not be smart at all.  I went back and took more practice tests.

There was another factor I had to think about: urination.

I am a committed diet cola drinker -- it gives me a caffeine boost each day (I don't drink coffee). But that cola is also a diuretic, and prompts regular runs to the bathroom. That's not a problem if I'm at home or at work, but on on the strictly scheduled SAT, you can't just run to the toilet any time you want.  And squirming with full bladder while trying to solve a quadratic equation wouldn't be a good thing.

So in the week ahead of the SAT, I gave up diet cola. My bathrooms runs ebbed. But my body still craved caffeine.

So on the day of the test I came prepared with a mint chocolate Clif Bar -- each one has 50 milligrams of caffeine.  I figured this would be just enough to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches.

As I arrived at the high school where I would take my test, a long line of cars backed out of the parking lot as parents dropped off their kids for the important day. Eventually, I slipped in and grabbed the first available parking spot.

At the front of the school were sheets with names of all the test-takers and our assigned rooms. I was a little early when I got my room and had a small bite of Clif Bar as I waited to enter.

Eventually, our testing supervisor, a friendly woman about my age, ushered us into the room. She checked each person's "ticket" and examined our photo IDs.  Test-takers who has brought a cell phone had to hand it over. Soon a big stack of phones piled up on a table at the front of the room.

When I checked in, I grinned at the proctor and said, "Yes, I am taking the SAT."  She said that was great, and asked if I was going back to school. No, just curious, I said.

I was somewhat nervous for the test. I knew it would require a full morning of hard concentration.  Of course, in my case, it really didn't matter. I wasn't trying to get into college. But I still wanted to do well.

Our supervisor told each person where to sit. I think her main goal was to split up people who knew each other.  I was one of the first people to check in and got assigned a seat right in front. Perfect. I had a great view of the clock, and there would be fewer distractions sitting in front.

There were a lot of preliminary items to fill out on the test form -- name, address, test center code, test booklet code, signature. But soon we launched into the test.

The first part was the reading section -- at 65 minutes, the longest section. There were five reading passages, each with 10 or 11 questions following it.

This was intense reading and sometimes I cupped my hands around my face to make sure I fully concentrated on the passage. This was no time to let your mind wander.

Before reading each passage, I would glance at the questions to give me a hint of what to look for. I think this slightly helped.

I thought it was somewhat mean to put the most scientific and technical of the passages -- one dealing with bacteria and vaccines -- at the end. That was tough. If I take the SAT again, I would consider finding the scientific passage (there always is one) and doing it first.

It was a tiring section and I was grateful we had a 10-minute break afterward (time for more Clif Bar).  I made sure when I got back to my desk to close my eyes and try to clear my head before the next section.

The next section was the writing and language section. My pace was a little slow early on during this section, and I had to pick it up about halfway through. But it worked, and I finished in time. I found that in some cases I didn't have to read the entire passage to understand the question.

Next up was math section with no calculator.  Our supervisor had been diligent about posting the stop times on the board, and then warning us as the clock counted down. But she made a mistake here. She announced that 10 minutes was remaining, when in fact, it was about five minutes. I gave her a curious look -- I was in the front row -- and pointed at the board. She corrected herself quickly.

(Some might say that I shouldn't have corrected her, and got an additional 5 minutes. But the finishing time was clearly printed on the board. If  she hadn't recognized the mistake when I noted it, she would have later, likely causing more confusion and consternation.)

After that section, we had a five minute break. Another bite of Clif Bar.

Then it was on to math section with calculator.  I did my best, but there were definitely questions I had to guess on. One thing you learn preparing for the SAT is to have a mental clock in your head, and recognize when you've just got to move on from a question. You can't keep pounding your head against the wall on a question you're not getting. Make your best guess and go on.

In none of the sections  -- fortunately -- did I really run out of time. I always had at least three minutes to review my answers at the end. This was partly because I knew when give up on certain questions, but it still felt satisfying. 

After that section was a 2-minute "stretch break."  Then came the SAT's "experimental" section.  This is a section where the College Board tries out new material. They insist, however, that some of the questions count (some people doubt that).

Apparently, not everybody gets the same type of section here. I got math with calculator.  You only have 20 minutes on this section, and while this portion was the easiest of the whole test, for a while I feared that I might not finish all the questions.

Here was the problem: For all the other sections, the bubble-in answer sheet had exactly the same number of available answer spaces as there were questions. So in the experimental section, going by the answer sheet, it looked like there were 22 questions. And about halfway through the time, I was alarmed to see that I a lot of question to go.

Then  suddenly, I realized there were only 15 questions. (It's likely the answer sheet is designed to handle more questions because different people get different material on the experimental section.)

This gave me much extra time, and relief. But that extra time actually caused me a problem. With plenty of time to reconsider my answers, I honed in on one question that showed two equations and asked that if  those equations were graphed, how many places would they intersect?

At first, I said zero. Upon reconsideration, I said, no, one and changed my answer. Then I thought again, and said, no it's zero. More erasing. Finally, just as time was expiring. I changed it back to one.

Sigh. As I left the high school, I realized it should have been zero. I had overthought.  I hope they don't count the experimental section!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book review: "The Perfect Score Project" by Debbie Stier

To Debbie Stier, the SAT is spelled FUN.

You heard that right. The standardized test that so many high school students fear, curse and dread -- well, Stier loves. She says she found "joy" in taking it. 

And, after reading "The Perfect Score Project," I'm on Stier's side.

Stier is a mom who was concerned that her son would not get into a decent college -- or perhaps no college at all -- if he didn't score well on the SAT. So she set out to find what it takes to succeed on the famous, or infamous, test.

In one year, Stier took the SAT seven times. Her goal was to achieve a perfect score, hence the name of the book. To find out what it would take to get there, she sampled a gamut of test-preparation techniques, reading books, attending classes, even practicing zen-like relaxation techniques.

Even if you don't find the SAT fun, "The Perfect Score Project" is a great, enjoyable read. If you're a parent you'll empathize with Stier's struggles in getting her son to take the SAT seriously. And her own struggles in trying to raise her score are both amusing and engaging.

Sprinkled through the books are tips are how to do better on the SAT: Take the official study tests, know how to use your calculator well ahead of time, sit at the front of the room (to remove distractions) and remember that the hardest math questions are at the end of the section. Stiers discovers that many SAT prep books aren't that helpful -- and some give completely incorrect advice -- but after much trial and error she finds ones she likes.

Still, "The Perfect Score Project" is not so much about tips and tricks as about the curious world of people who find the SAT a delightful challenge. Stiers finds a subculture of adults who enjoy the challenge of the SAT, and she becomes one of them.

"How many other moms in their forties have discovered they love the SAT?" she wonders.  

It's enough to get me curious. My high school days ended decades ago, but I will soon be taking my first SAT.


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Book review: "Two Wheels Through Terror" by Glen Heggstad

Come for the terrorism, stay for the bike ride.

That's my take-away from "Two Wheels Through Terror," a fascinating 2004 book by Glen Heggstad.

A couple of events led me to Heggstad's book. First, I was intrigued by an episode of the TV show "Locked Up Abroad that re-enacted Heggstad's one-month ordeal as a prisoner of the Colombian terrorist group ELN in 2001. Separately, after I posted a review of a survival-oriented book online, a reader responded with a recommendation for "Two Wheels Through Terror."

I didn't run out and grab the book immediately, but I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. It's an amazing story of Heggstad's eight-month motorcycle ride from California all the way to the southern tip of South America and back.

What really surprised me is that the kidnapping ordeal turned out to be only a small part of what makes the book interesting.

Going in, I figured I might just read the captivity story, and then skim the rest of the book. Because what could be so interesting about a guy riding a motorcycle for long stretches? Plenty, as it turns out.

Heggstad, a judo instructor, puts a lot of himself into this book, and he's an interesting character. He is disciplined, stubborn, smug, independent and curious. In the book, one of his friends calls Heggstad "selfish," which in some cases seems true, but at other times he shows a gift of introspection and compassion for others.

"This journey was never intended to prove something to anyone else," he writes. "My intention was to better understand the real world and my own character, as well as to explore my own limits."

I admire him for even considering doing this solo trip, and for the careful planning that went into it. He and a friend modified his motorcycle to prepare for the rough road conditions he would encounter. He sewed hidden money pockets into clothes and an extra set of keys was hidden inside his motorcycle, both of which came in handy.

Heggstad even prepared a fake "cover story" in case he ran into trouble (and, of course, he did)  He made a fake ID card saying he was journalist with a motorcycle magazine, and he was ready with a story that he had prostate cancer and couldn't survive without special medicine. The latter element was crucial to winning his release.

It's a quite readable book and it's enjoyable to live vicariously through his travels (even though many of the events weren't "enjoyable" to Heggstad).

His captivity takes place early in the book and by the time it was over I was hooked. Heggsted startles everyone by insisting on continuing his ride afterwards.  He ventures through soaking rainstorms, freezing temperatures, sweltering deserts. He suffers a concussion during one fall. He nearly gets attacked by angry farmers, and is stopped numerous times by corrupt cops looking for a payoff.

Typically, I find most books too wordy,  but "Two Wheels Through Terror" is different -- I would have liked to see more. While he offers up many interesting events, Heggstad sometimes only hints at other experiences, without going into detail. For instance, in Argentina, he refers vaguely to "my new friend in Argentina" -- apparently a woman he grows close to -- but offers little more.

Be sure to read the epilogue. It describes how Heggstad's time in captivity led to feuds and anger among his friends, as they disagreed about what to do.

In all, Heggstad's describes the trip as a life-changing experience.

"At times, at the peak of frustration that travelers in strange lands so often endure, just when I thought I couldn't stand anymore, it was the sparkling eyes of a laughing, soft-haired child, the kindness of an aging Indian woman, or the stunning splendor of the Andes that rocked my spirit and tugged me back eagerly into the wholesome embrace of a land of many faces."


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)